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The Woman Behind Jack London

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
October 19, 2023 3:01 am

The Woman Behind Jack London

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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October 19, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Iris Jamal Dunkle tells the story of Charmian Kittridge London in the first full length Biography written about her, entitled Charmian Kittredge London: Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer.

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Make sure rat problem go away. And we continue with our American stories and up next we have the story of Charmian Kittredge London brought to us by author Iris Jamal Dunkel. Dunkel is a teacher at Napa Valley College in California. She has loved Jack London ever since she went on a field trip to Jack London State Park when she was in middle school. This field trip sparked within her a desire to make writing her life.

Here's Faith with the story. Jack London, best selling American author, is known for his adventure stories such as Call of the Wild and the Sea Wolf, along with his popular short story To Build a Fire. But he was not only famous for his writings.

During his time, he was truly a celebrity. He was known for his world travels and his adventures and boat trips around the globe. But what many people do not know is that London was hardly a solo traveler. Many of his trips, he was accompanied by his second wife, Charmian Kittredge London.

We have known very little about Charmian. It's only as of 2020 that the first full length biography on Charmian Kittredge London was published by Iris Jamal Dunkel. We come to find that she herself was a writer and adventurer, and so much more than just Jack London's wife. Here's author Iris Jamal Dunkel and how she came across Charmian when she was looking through a book of poems and found a very famous picture of Jack London.

The picture of Jack London on the hillside on his horse is actually on Sonoma Mountain. And it said taken by Charmian Kittredge London. And I had seen that photo a million times in my life. In fact, it's at the park at Jack London State Park.

It's on the garbage cans. And so it's so familiar to me. But I had never thought to think who took that photo.

And so I immediately reached out to Jack London scholars with whom I corresponded all the time. And I said, did you know that Charmian took this photograph? And they said, well, I never really thought to ask that question. And that's where I was like, oh, wow.

Well, what else haven't we asked? And so I went back to Charmian's life and tried to figure out why was her story not told correctly? And the answer came in researching the story of how she met Irving Stone, who ended up writing a biography about her and Jack London called Sailor on Horseback. And she thought he just wanted to write a biography about Jack.

She got visitors all the time who wanted to do that. He came into her life and just totally seduced her, acted like she was a complete intellectual. He adored her work. She'd written a biography on Jack London herself.

He said it was the best he'd ever read. He took her out dancing. And it turns out that through this kind of seduction, he got her to sign away her legal rights to her story. He made her think that they would be collaborating on this story. But because she signed away her legal rights and he actually did not like her at all.

When you start to read these letters, you start to see this. He wrote this horrible version of Charmian in his biography, a biography. It's actually a fictional biography because of the license he took in the stories he told. And he he wrote that. And Charmian was so mad about his violation of her trust that, number one, she burned many of her documents, including some of her early diaries where she talked about what it was like to be a woman in the late eighteen hundreds, a woman who was college educated, a woman who was driven to find a career. She burned those because he didn't understand it. He thought because she didn't get married and had different people who she dated, that she must be, you know, a loose woman, you know, instead of like she knew if she got married, she'd lose her job because that's the way it worked back then. And so she burned those diaries. She also locked everything away in the Huntington Library. And at that point, what that did when his book came out and started saying these things like she was an airhead, she really slandered her husband's name, made it worse for him, was jealous, didn't care about anything except fashion, which is all false lies because of that. And because she locked down the files, the version that he published of her stuck for the next 80 years. And it wasn't until scholars like Clarice does and myself were able to dig back into that content and unearth who she really was that the public is really getting to know her again. And so even at the park, Jacqueline State Park, things were telling a different story than how they really were. So it's important to know who she really was. And that's where the book begins, is with that question. Charmian's family moved across the country following the gold rush and started their lives in California, where Charmian was born.

They were the picture of the American West. Unfortunately, at the young age of five, her mother passed away and she was left with her father, which wouldn't last long. One day, her Aunt Tissy came into her dad's boarding house and found Charmian was propped up on the bar.

She's five years old, talking to all the people who'd come into the bar, right, to swap, to listen to their stories. But her aunt was like, this is no way to raise a lady. She and Netta, Nanetta, who ended up raising Charmian, sent her away to Oakland to be raised by her aunt. And that's when Charmian started to really come into her own. Fast forward several years and when Charmian is 14 years old, her father came up to visit.

And during that, he felt ill. What happened was they sent Charmian out on an errand and they said, you know, go get this medicine. But when she came back and she came back to an empty bed, her father had died and they had removed his body and she never got to say goodbye to him. And so it was a loss that was really hard for her to get over because of that. And afterwards, she became fiercely independent. She learned shorthand. She got a job working at Mills College, got her education and finally met like-minded people, these intellectual women.

Because Mills College was one of the first schools on the on the West Coast to west of the Rockies to open up for women. Then she became a stenographer and she had she worked for one of the largest shipping firms in San Francisco. She had an assistant that reported to her.

She had purchased her own horse. She had a maid that cleaned her house. I mean, she was very successful and very confident. And she dated a lot of guys during this time. All her dating and socializing would soon bring her to meet the best selling author, Jack London, changing the course of her life.

They met through her aunt, who at the time was a writer and editor for the Overland Monthly. Jack London was not snazzy when he was young. He looked like a sailor.

He had a bow legged walk, you know, and he didn't really get fashion quite yet. I mean, he was a very handsome man, but she was like at first she's like, who's this guy? You know, but when she sat down, they had this amazing conversation. He had this mind like a jar full of bees. It was just ding, ding, ding. And she had a similar mind.

They had this immediate connection intellectually. He's like, oh, will you review my book? And she's like, sure, whatever. I'll do it, you know, and and I really want to borrow some of your books because he couldn't get to band books.

So a lot of like Tess of the D'Urbervilles was banned at the time. She he wanted to be able to read those. So he's like, can I borrow them?

She's like, sure, come by sometime. And so they scheduled to have him come by. And so they immediately had this connection. They had all these plans in the, you know, the go horseback riding, which Jack didn't know how to do. And so she was going to teach him how to ride. But he, out of the blue, decided to get married. And he married Bess Mattern out of like this commitment towards being a writer and getting a schedule. You know, he thought they would make very nice children together. And so Charmian was like, that's weird.

Whatever, you know, but something between the relationship really sparked something in her. And she's like, you know what? I'm going to go travel the world. She went around Europe and started writing about her travels, which is something that she had always wanted to do. Like since she was a child, she had dreamed of traveling the world and writing about it. So when she gets back to the Bay Area from her travels, she's a changed woman. She goes back to working as a stenographer and she gets invited to Jack London's house. And you're listening to Iris Jamal Dunkel tell the story of Charmian, Kittridge, London. And when we come back, more of this story, a story of a time period, a story of, well, what it was like to be a woman in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

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See app for details. And we return to Our American Stories. And we've been listening to Irish Jamal Dunkel share the story of her book, Charmian Kittredge London, trailblazer, author, adventurer. Dunkel's book is the first full length biography on Charmian, who was Jack London's second wife. Her story has been told inaccurately for years and mostly forgotten. We left off after Jack had decided to marry someone else. Rather than let that get her down. Charmian began traveling and upon her return, she was invited to London's house back to Irish Jamal Dunkel.

That's where all of the artists are going for parties. She challenges Jack to a fencing match. He was like, oh yeah, okay, lady, let's do this.

You know, she'll just let me win. But little did he know, A, Charmian had studied fencing at Mills College. B, she was not going to just let him win. She was very athletic. And so she went and kicked his butt and he was so shocked. He ran over and kissed her on the lips.

Granted, Jack London had two small babies at home and he was married. They didn't immediately have an affair, right? They had that kiss. She kept going to the parties. They were in the same social circle.

So they were always coming across each other and doing activities together. But slowly they started to have that connection that they had felt filled into this romance that just caught on fire. They were so over the top in love. Their love letters are just ridiculous in their sappiness. And sometimes they'd write to each other like three, four times a day. And she'd be like, I'm waiting by the mailbox for your letter. But why they were so in love and why they called each other mate, they found in each other this kind of mirror image of who they wanted.

And so I think that's why it ignited so fast. Meanwhile, Jack's married. He has to kind of sneak around until he finally tells his wife that he wants to be separated. And this, of course, causes a huge ruckus because he's a celebrity at this point.

He's written Call of the Wild. He filed for divorce in California law at that time. You had to wait a year before you could get married.

And so, you know, they started it was really troubling for Jack. He actually finally morally was dealing with the fact that he was leaving his young family. Right. And feeling bad.

But he still did it. They got married the day that the divorce went through instead of waiting for this planned ceremony. And that was kind of like how it was going to be with Jack going forward. And off they were on their honeymoon. They went to Jamaica and Cuba and began their explorations and writing about them. When they came back to the Bay Area to start their married life together, the itch to travel got the better of them. And they started planning a boat trip on a small yacht called the Snark.

After some delays in 1907, they finally set sail on the Snark. This is when Charmian began logging their journey. Throughout all their trips, they were being followed by reporters and stories were being written about their adventures. They did all kinds of crazy adventures on the Snark, including when they were in Hawaii. They both learned how to surf. And what's notable is how Jack would record these adventures and his writing about the trip called the Cruise of the Snark as if he were the only one doing these things. In reality, Charmian is also there surfing on a 75-pound wooden surfboard with him in Waikiki. But it sold more copies to have just Jack London do it.

And so that's why he recorded it that way. And you see that throughout their adventures. So they travel from Hawaii to the Marquesian Islands to Tahiti and then on to Bora Bora and beyond to the Solomon Islands. And they plan to continue on. But while they're on this adventure, Jack gets sick.

They both develop yaws, which is a disease that you get in the South Seas where you get these wounds on your arms that are as big as baseballs. Jack became very, very ill. And so they had to leave the Solomon Islands and travel to Australia so he could have surgery and recover. But unfortunately, it was something that Jack couldn't recover from and they had to end their trip. And Charmian was devastated. This was probably the most important journey of her life, she felt like. And so when they had to end the trip, she sobbed.

She was so sad. When they got back from their journey, Charmian soon found out she was pregnant. In May of 1910, she started to get ready to give birth. She went into labor and they had been told everything was normal. But very soon into labor, they realized that everything was not normal. Charmian weighed maybe 115 pounds and her baby weighed over nine pounds. And she was having a very difficult labor.

The doctor ended up having to use forceps and because of that, he broke. She later called her baby Joy baby. The doctor broke Joy's neck. What makes it worse is that while she was delivering Joy, her placenta didn't deliver. And so she was bleeding out on the table and had to be rushed into immediate surgery. And so it turned out that she never got to see her child in the 38 hours that she survived.

So it was a really, really sad time for Charmian. She was not only physically damaged by the birth. What happened from the surgery she had directly after giving birth was scar. It was a terrible job and she ended up with terrible scar tissue. And so she was unbeknownst to her.

She was not going to ever be able to carry a child to term. After the terrible loss of her baby, they went back to their adventures. And Jack began research for his novel, The Valley of the Moon. And by this time, Charmian is a real integral part of their collaboration team. She's taking notes. She's giving her own perspective. And what happens is Jack actually starts incorporating some of her actual text into the novel. And so she makes note of this in her diary as he's composing it. And so we have proof of her collaboration with Jack on the actual text. And what's really interesting is in this novel that Jack writes based on her interaction and collaboration, we see one of the first kind of real like women, Saxon, the protagonist from The Valley of the Moon, really seems like a real woman and her experiences like losing her child seem really vivid and real. And the reason why is because Jack was actually talking to Charmian directly about that.

And she was able to give him direct feedback. After going on this journey, they decide to head to New York. They want to go on passage on the Deir Ego, which is the three-masted ship that they want to take around Cape Horn to Seattle. So when they get back from their journey on the Deir Ego, he ends up having an appendicitis and when he goes in for surgery, his doctor realizes that his kidneys are in really bad shape. And he says, you know, you've got to change this behavior or you're going to die.

You know, this is this is not good. Your kidneys are failing. Little did he know that what was causing that kidney failure partially was the fact that while they were on the snark, when they were experiencing the sores, they would rub mercury ointment on their sores.

And because of that, obviously mercury is not good for your kidneys. So that's what was making him so ill. In the months that follow, he gets worse and worse. And finally that November, one night he comes into Charmian's sleeping porch, came in and told her how much he loved her and said he was going to go read. And he she looked over a few hours later and he was slumped over and she thought he'd just fallen asleep while I was reading. Well, the next morning, Eliza rushes in, wakes her up and says, something's wrong with Jack. And so she rushes over and finds him in a coma. And it's a coma he never wakes up from. They called the doctors.

They do everything. But meanwhile, Jack does not wake up and he passes away. And Charmian is devastated. And all of a sudden Charmian was left with this giant ranch that they had accumulated. All of these pending writings, you know, Jack had like a story in the typewriter that day, right?

He had no intention of dying. And so she was left with all of this, all of these loose ends to carry on. But at the same time, she was also left with the freedom to approach her life in her own way and not have to, you know, take care of Jack London. And so she was really of two minds.

She was like, I'm free, but I'm also devastated. Charmian began to write seriously, but she goes back to the ranch and becomes totally committed to creating this biography. She works really hard, writes a two volume biography and it becomes this massive project.

It does get a good reception, but it's not great. She really is left with this idea of wanting to find the right biographer for Jack, which eventually will lead her to Irving Stone, which, of course, will lead to her not being remembered correctly for many years to come. Before she meets Irving Stone, so many wonderful things happen. She travels the world speaking to sometimes gatherings of 23,000 people. She spends a lot of time in Europe and is very popular. She publishes two books about Hawaii, Our Hawaii and Our Hawaii Islands and Islanders, giving her a total of four books. She continues to publish articles and really is a celebrity in her own right. She wasn't afraid to be who she was in order to live an independent life. And a special thanks to Irish Jamal Dunkel for her story and sharing her book, Charmian Kittredge London Trailblazer Author Adventure. The story of Charmian Kittredge London here on Our American Story.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-10-19 04:24:11 / 2023-10-19 04:34:15 / 10

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